Thursday, February 22, 2018

Fake News Can Kill

One mother of young children sent me a Facebook-disseminated story about vaccines from a site called Neon Nettle.  Neon Nettle is a mostly fake news site about health research and health issues.

This particular story (not linking to it but to the corrections) argued that the process of creating the flu vaccine was what caused the mutation of the flu virus, supposedly into a more deadly form.  The site posts a lot of anti-vaccination fake news, and this particular mother had used the site's misinformation as the basis for her decision not to get anyone in her family vaccinated.

Fake news are not only a problem in political propaganda, but much more widely, and the online era has expanded the reach of such news to a far larger audience.  In the past health news, for instance, were reported by the established press, and the largest newspapers (often the intermediate sources for smaller newspapers) employed properly trained health care reporters.

This is no longer the case.  Anyone with net access can make up news or interpret them.  The evaluation of the truth value of such news is left to the audience.  Clearly, many cannot evaluate information in those terms, and in some cases shouldn't even be asked to do so.*

Add to this the clickbait value of certain types of research findings, and we get an environment where sloppy reporting and fake news are rewarded**.  It's that reward structure we need to change. 


* Because sometimes the problem is in the studies themselves, in bad methodology, poorly interpreted results and so on.  Reporters covering health research on a full-time basis often know enough basic statistics and have learned which journals are not real peer-reviewed ones.  This allows them to avoid publicizing most bad research.

But one study looks like another study in truth value to a lay reader, and the cleverer fake news sites use that and a pseudo-scientific writing style to make their lies look credible.

In other words, education can help in making the audience more informed about fake news, but it cannot be a complete substitute for higher quality reporting.

** For an example which is not about fake reporting but about the lack of incentives for publishing any corrections to that initial reporting, see this post.

Note, also, that the way some social media sites try to respond to our past reading and browsing behavior can make this problem more severe, if they first give you suggestions which are similar to your past choices.   That "tailoring to individual preferences" reinforces the walls of already existing separate information bubbles.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Annie Scrap Your Gun

The recent school killing in Florida resulted in the deaths of seventeen individuals*.  It also produced the usual pro-gun chatter which follows every school killing in this country:

Prayers and thoughts, let's not politicize a tragedy, let's not penalize law-abiding (always that word!) citizens with guns for something they did not do.  Guns don't kill people, people kill people.  And so on.  And on.  And on.

But this time something is different in the air.  The teens (the major targets in school killings) are not accepting all that usual crap.  They are fighting back and they are organizing:

And the owner of the gun shop where the butcher bought his AR-15 assault weapon has closed its doors "indefinitely."

I hope that something truly changes, but I'm not holding my breath.

The reason for my skepticism comes from the Pew survey from last June, about Americans' views on gun control and gun rights:

A majority of gun owners (66%) own multiple firearms, and about three-quarters (73%) say they could never see themselves not owning a gun.
Many American gun owners exist in a social context where gun ownership is the norm. Roughly half of all gun owners (49%) say that all or most of their friends own guns. In stark contrast, among those who don’t own a gun, only one-in-ten say that all or most of their friends own guns.

In short, the love of guns is cultural.  It's very difficult to change cultural norms, and attempts to change them are viewed by those inside the culture as contempt, outsider meddling and as infringement of their basic freedoms.

More importantly, I've come to see that the ultimate justification for gun ownership for many is emotional, not fact-based.  One example of how gun manufacturers have used this can be seen in the following (older) advertisement:

The emotional basis of some gun ownership can be also seen from the Pew survey:

While the right to own guns is highly valued by most gun owners, not all gun owners see gun ownership the same way. Half of all gun owners say owning a gun is important to their overall identity – with 25% saying this is very important and another 25% calling it somewhat important. Three-in-ten gun owners say owning a gun is not too important to their identity and 20% say it’s not at all important.

Gun owners in that survey tell that the most important reason for owning a gun is personal protection (for the owners and their families).

But some other answers suggest that the gun is viewed almost as a talisman,  something that will act on its own against all the imagined threats, even if the owner cannot shoot very well, even if the owner hasn't practiced much and even if the owner has never thought through what might happen when several people take out their guns in, say, a school killing.  How can the police know who the killer is then?

Among the Pew survey answers which cast doubt on the personal protection argument is this one:

When asked about their own habits, roughly half of gun owners with children under 18 living at home say all of the guns in their home are kept in a locked place (54%) and all are unloaded (53%).
Still, many gun owners with children say at least some of their guns are kept unlocked and loaded. In fact, 30% of these gun owners say there is a gun that is both loaded and easily accessible to them all of the time when they’re at home.
Is it easily accessible to the children of those gun owners, too?  Because if it is, the personal protection argument rings hollow.

If emotions, fear and identity concerns indeed are what truly lies behind the desire to own guns, gun control arguments based on evidence and facts will not make anyone change their minds.

This is because the very idea of relinquishing one's guns can immediately bring up images of the gun owner as a weak and hapless victim, someone bound to end up dead at the hands of some other person with a gun.  And those other people can always get guns illegally.

Against that onslaught of fear even the butchering of countless young children begins to look acceptable.

Or it has looked acceptable in the past.  Things just might be different now.


For those of you who prefer facts, the New York Times has published a good statistical summary which compares the United States with other countries.


*  Only days after the massacre, Florida state House voted down a motion to ban many types of assault weapons and large capacity magazines.  Sigh.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Short Posts, 2/16/18. On Russian Election Interference, Porn As Sex Education And Other Interesting Topics

1.  Thirteen individuals working at a Russian troll farm have been charged with "an audacious scheme" to criminally interfere in the 2016 US presidential election.  The indictment makes for fun reading.

It shows that the main goal of the trolling (1) was to disrupt, to sow distrust of American institutions and doubt about factual evidence, to create false evidence,  and to exacerbate existing political divisions within the US.  That appears to be Putin's plan of interference in Western liberal democracies.

The concrete focus of the scheme was to stop Hillary Clinton from winning the election.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The President Opposes Domestic Abuse! Aren't You Glad To Learn That, Finally?

When the two ex-wives of White House aide Rob Porter accused him of domestic violence (including choking), we were first told that this was shocking new information for Trump's Chief of Staff John Kelly who, nevertheless, urged Porter to stay and fight the accusations. 

Porter resigned, but then we learn that he couldn't get security clearance because of these accusations and that Kelly may have been aware of them much earlier than he has stated.  So now some would like Kelly's head on a plate, with parsley.

Let's put this drama into a perspective by starting with Donald Trump and the kind of views he holds.  One example:

Monday, February 12, 2018

Short Posts, Monday, 2/12/18: Economic Inequality in the US, Whataboutism, Flawed Voting Systems

1.  Economic inequality in the United States is greater than in Europe.  The 2015 economics Nobel prize winner, Angus Deaton, has written an interesting article on inequality, well worth reading.  He refers to the toothless anti-trust enforcement and the death of trade unions as two reasons (among many) for the increases in wealth and income inequality.

I see many of the developments of the last three decades as an intentional push to move every type of power up the economic hierarchies, but the process has been slow.  And then, one fine morning, we wake up into a world where a handful of large firms are both selling us everything and also buying our labor.  The power has slowly slipped and slid to that side of the market, and the owners of those large firms also have the power to buy the government policies they want.  That political power is now being used to stop us making the corrections that are urgently required:  Enforce anti-trust laws, recreate a countervailing power for the giant corporations.

2.  Asma Jahangir has died.  She was a Pakistani human rights advocate, fighting, all her life, against powerful interests in her country:

Critics often questioned her focus on the country’s minorities and on women’s rights. She fended off such criticism as misplaced.
“Yes, I am very unhappy, extremely anguished at human rights violations against Kashmiris in India or against Rohingyas in Burma or, for that matter, Christians in Orissa. But obviously I am going to be more concerned of violations taking place in my own house because I am closer to the people who I live with. I have more passion for them,” Ms. Jahangir told Herald.
“And I think it sounds very hollow if I keep talking about the rights of Kashmiris but do not talk about the rights of a woman in Lahore who is butchered to death.”

Whataboutism.  It is extremely commonly aimed at those who focus on women's rights.

3.  Future historians (assuming there will be a future) are going to scratch their heads wondering why the news about troubled voting systems have caused hardly a ripple in our public conversations.  If the elections can be manipulated democracy will be over.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

More on Jordan Peterson

The Guardian asks how dangerous he is, and appears to answer: "very."

For more on professor Peterson and his ideas, I recommend the fruits of my female labor on this blog.* 

First, the post in which I explain why Peterson's facts didn't win the famous (seen six million plus times on YouTube) Channel 4 interview, even though he did win it, because the interviewer was unprepared.

This matters, as the right wing folks keep telling us that Peterson's arguments in that debate were the truth.

Second, do read my long review of his book. (The links are in order of the three posts in the series.)

I spent a lot of energy on it, and it's a pretty good response to all sorts of essentialist Damore-type arguments about why women suck in STEM and also why women doing so well in college in general also sucks!

I wanted to put many of the references in one place, and they are in the end notes to the three posts.  You can ignore those if you wish, but you might want to bookmark the posts and put that in your debate arsenal.


and (added later) this article.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Trump Wants A Military Parade

Yes, he does.  And he just may get one.

Let's give him some models he might want to use for it.  Here's Berlin 1933:

And here's North Korea in 2017

Russia in 2016

Turkey in 2014

My thoughts on this? 

First, Trump has a mental age of about five years.  He wants what he wants and it doesn't really matter if what he wants is good for the country. 

Second, there is no particular reason for a military parade.  No special anniversary of the country, for instance.  This parade is just for Donald Trump, I guess.   And that smells of a dictatorship, even of totalitarianism.

Third, it might be difficult to criticize the parade without that being used (in the fake news bubble) as a criticism of the US military, whether it is intended for that, too, or not.  This could be part of Trump's plan (and part of the greater plan to truly tear the country apart).

And fourth, boasting about its military might is below par for a country with the largest, most humongous military budget on the globe.  It comes across as menacing, threatening and bullying.  It certainly doesn't signal great self-confidence in the fundamental values of the United States.

Four Thoughts On The Current Stage Of The Trump Reich

1.  It's un-American and even treasonous not to applaud when Our Supreme Leader gives good labor market news.  So says Our Supreme Leader, and therefore this must be true.  Well, it would be true if the United States already were a dictatorship.

2.  The Trump administration approach to preventing and controlling pandemics could serve as a metaphor of many of the changes it has created.  The changes all share the view that nothing bad will ever happen, and that, say,  all firms only think of the best of their customers, so it's unnecessary to have safety regulations at work or at home, or rules which protect the environment or even an office intended to protect the interest of consumers. 

Besides, by the time the next catastrophe happens, Trump might already be gone, and his friends, too.  With the money bags, filled from the government coffers?

Whatever the case about that might be, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are going to cut their pandemic prevention efforts by eighty percent.  This is because of lack of funds:

Most of the funding comes from a one-time, five-year emergency package that Congress approved to respond to the 2014 Ebola epidemic in West Africa. About $600 million was awarded to the CDC to help countries prevent infectious-disease threats from becoming epidemics. That money is slated to run out by September 2019. Despite statements from President Trump and senior administration officials affirming the importance of controlling outbreaks, officials and global infectious-disease experts are not anticipating that the administration will budget additional resources.
A pandemic is unlikely to stay out of the United States, even if it begins in some other country, and the odds of another pandemic happening in the next few years are fairly high, if the past can be used to predict the future. 

But the Trump administration doesn't seem to care, perhaps because it is an administration staffed by people who adore Trump, rather than by people who have the skills and experience necessary for the job?  Or because it is an administration not for the American people, but only for Trump's real base (the Koch brothers, the Mercer family and others in the one percent)?  Or both?

3.  Something related is taking place inside the State Department which is slowly turning into a ghost town, largely, because Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wants it that way.

But the deeper concern I have about those changes is this (from last December):

Elizabeth Shackelford, who most recently served as a political officer based in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia, wrote to Tillerson that she reluctantly had decided to quit because the administration had abandoned human rights as a priority and shown disdain for the State Department’s diplomatic work, according to her letter, obtained by Foreign Policy.
The State Department’s role in internal government debates also had “diminished,” she wrote, with the White House handing over authority to the Pentagon to shape the country’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, unfilled vacancies and proposed budget and staffing cuts had left the department adrift, with weakened influence inside the administration and on the ground, she wrote.

Bolds are mine.  If the Pentagon is to shape the foreign policy of the United States, what kind of policies should we expect?  And if the US abandons human rights as a priority, while showing disdain for diplomatic work, what kind of a world will then come about? 

My guess is that it will be one in which human rights, including women's rights, matter not at all, while warfare matters very much indeed, though probably not in the sense of trying to prevent the slaughter wars cause.

Am I quite incorrect if all this sounds very much like the choice not to care about other people, the choice never to use "soft" options and the choice to always blow the war horns?  What is the role the Trumpites see for this country?  Something like Turkey or Russia?  Well, I guess Angela Merkel is now the leader of the liberal West.

4.  Last but not least, the recent stock market plunge.  Our Supreme Leader told us often that the credit for the bullish stock market was his.  So what about yesterday's deep and dramatic nosedive in that market?

The result is that a president who tossed aside traditional presidential caution in cheerleading the stock market now stands poised to take the blame for any correction.
“This is a risk that the president clearly set himself up for,” said Charles Gabriel of Capital Alpha Partners, a Washington research firm. “Until now, Trump’s had kind of a free ride in this market and taken so much credit for it, even though so much of it was due to easy-money policies from Janet Yellen and the Fed. Now she’s out the door and volatility is back.”
 So.  But at least he got rid of that woman in the Fed.